Doubts will set in, but our vital interests are at stake. This time, the definition can't be slipped.

Washington is so haunted by its politics and its past that in the beginning no engagement in a war or quasi war seems real. We judge it in intensely Beltway-centric terms: how "He" -- presidents always get mixed up in our minds with God for the first few days -- is "doing." We figure the odds on how the allies will respond and then either sigh with a weary I-told-you-so smirk or marvel that they came through. We muster very self-interested analyses of how the horrid turn of events only bolsters the position we were arguing on some other question -- defense spending, budget cuts, soybean subsidies -- the day before. We sift through the latest skinny on who was in, really in, the White House deliberations and who got frozen out. And then we come back to how He is holding up.

Damn well, came the early consensus. There was widespread agreement that George Bush had taken the right moves in the right order and achieved a remarkable diplomatic and military mobilization. It is possible to buy this appraisal, as I do, and yet to wonder whether Bush will be able to keep Americans and a newly stalwart international community in for the long haul. Bush controlled what was his to control extremely well, but there are other critical components beyond his power to affect. The dispute quickly began to take on an unpredictable dynamic of its own. And it began to reach ominously into American households. A Honduran-born friend, known to me for that fierce patriotism so common in naturalized citizens, wept helplessly as she told me that her son's Marine detachment had been ordered to the Middle East.

The play period, in other words, is over; and it has generally been at precisely this point that the trouble began for a president. The unspoken, but understood, capital letters vanished. Not just "he" and "him," but "we" and "us" as well, dropped summarily to small letters, as the initial burst of national unity and collective confidence in the rightness of our purpose began to be assaulted. It is still very early in this process as I write, but I believe I already hear the distinct drip ... drip ... drip ... of that familiar leak somewhere in the roof.

Unless the president can reverse the usual pattern, it will get louder. There will be: the frustration of sending young Americans into a web of dangers from which it may once again be difficult either to extricate them or to propel them on to what used to be called victory. There will be: the cost and inconvenience at home. A man who was polled here in town by a local radio station the other day said he was against American involvement because he thought we should be "spending the money on our own homeless instead." This is a reduction to bare bones of the classic critique of American intervention overseas. What struck me when I heard it was that the proper answer to the man was so complicated that it hardly stood a chance. For we are not blessed with the possibility of any of those "God for Harry, England and Saint George!" battle cries. The most you could offer that guy was some unprepossessing think-tank economist walking him through the boring bramble of relationships between oil supply and pricing, interest rates, international trade, worldwide recession and God knew what all else to get to the relevance, which is real, of what is going on in the gulf to what will happen in our domestic economy -- and to the homeless and to him.

Any such American doubt will be fed by politics, in the first instance by people abroad who come up with fancy, high-minded rationalizations for either going over the side, if they are with us now, or for being on the other side. In a way you could say the whole of contemporary political and social life in this country and around the world has been a history of discovering that outrages universally assumed to be beyond the limits weren't. There is always much talk of avenging or redeeming the outrage. But almost invariably it is not the outrage that gets reversed but the limits that get moved, so that the outrage is suddenly seen to be on the right side of them.

Traditionally this is achieved by pointing out that others have done such things, that the culprits were provoked and that there is an element of social justice somewhere in their complaint. It is the ironic height of this phenomenon that Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who has impoverished the Arab people of his own oil-rich nation by his power-driven megamilitary buildup over the decades, now with a straight face proclaims himself to be acting in the gulf to right an egregious Arab social wrong, to achieve a more equitable sharing downward of the oil-wealth bounty. There is talk on his part, too, of righting historically misdrawn borders, never mind that an effort to sort out history-sanctioned claims to the territory now called Iraq (Greeks, Persians, Turks, Mongols and several completely different strains of Arabs) would take a lifetime. This was a money grab, not some nationalistic act taken from a fervor for reuniting a separated people.

And even so, in some quarters anyway, there will be a resonance to these arguments; you will begin to hear them coming back in time from the critics in this country. But this time there may be a counter. What Bush has going for him in this situation is not our own rhetoric about Munich and so forth, which is itself enormously vulnerable as we are not acting out of anything approaching sympathy for a swallowed-up sheikdom. What he has going for him is the fact that this is a vital interest that has been threatened, that this time the limit can't be moved or the definition of "vital" slipped a notch (another of our habits) to cover the next attack.

We and our friends and trading partners are dependent on Saudi oil. That is what this is about. It doesn't leave us a whole lot of room. Bush needs to make Americans understand that and, at least as important, understand that ultimately it is this, not just the momentary power relationships in the region, that needs to be changed. We aren't using the word "hostage" for the 3,000 or so Americans caught in Saddam Hussein's jurisdiction. Guess what? We also aren't using it, though we should, to describe the situation we have got ourselves into as a nation that can't, or at least won't, live without Persian Gulf oil.

1990, Newsweek, Inc. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.